After two seasons without competition, the European Under-19 Championship finals are back with a bang.
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It is three long years since UEFA’s men’s and women’s U17 and U19 EURO trophies were last held aloft. The 2019/20 competitions were abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020/21 was unable to begin at all. But, at last, the wait is over, and the eight teams gathered here in Slovakia help signal a return to normality.
The lifelong memories lost by young players who would have been involved in the cancelled tournaments cannot be replaced, but for the teams here, years of hard work will gain its reward.
“I am very excited that youth tournaments are finally back after a long and enforced break,” UEFA’s chief of football Zvonimir Boban said. “I cannot even imagine how excited and eager our young players must be to compete on this prestigious stage again. Youth development is the very essence of UEFA’s existence.”
Boban, a Champions League winner with AC Milan, can relate to the thrill of lining up for his country at youth level. Aged 19, he was part of the Yugoslavia side that won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship and even scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out against West Germany in the final.
"I cannot even imagine how excited and eager our young players must be to compete on this prestigious stage again."
That exceptional squad included the likes of Igor Štimac, Robert Prosinečki, Robert Jarni and Davor Šuker, and the lessons they learned in Chile in 1987 served them well. Just over a decade later, they helped Croatia finish third at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.
UEFA’s youth tournaments are important for more than just the matches; there are also the cultural and educational experiences to help broaden horizons. Travelling abroad, meeting people from other nations, playing in different environments, the challenges and rewards of tournament football, and learning from UEFA’s anti-doping and integrity education sessions organised are other invaluable benefits on offer.
Maxwell monitoring progress
UEFA chief of football development, former Brazil international Maxwell Scherrer, will be keeping a close eye on how the tournament progresses. Maxwell won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2011 and knows just what it takes to reach the top. “These are huge moments in the development of young players,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some of the best young players in Europe going head-to-head ... there will be a lot of future stars we can start to identify.”
“These tournaments provide a fresh platform for players, introducing them to new playing styles and different cultures, which helps their personal development as well as their professional growth. It’s important that UEFA provides these opportunities for male and female players, helping raise the level of elite football and ensuring every player has the chance to reach their potential.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some of the best young players in Europe going head-to-head. I urge supporters to watch closely, because there will be a lot of future stars we can start to identify.”
Returning to play – safety-first approach
UEFA’s evolving Return to Play protocol has been crucial in getting the tournaments up and running again, lowering the risk as far as possible by applying current medical advice and best practices. The security of young players was always a crucial part of organising these events, and the Return to Play protocol has extended this safety-first approach to COVID-19 protection as well. It has allowed the resumption of events crucial to UEFA’s mission, and part of the €2.4m payments currently made to each national association under the EURO-funded HatTrick programme goes towards the cost of entering UEFA’s youth events.
Fifty-four member associations duly entered the 2021/22 U19 EURO, with 52 of them lining up on the start line back in the autumn for the qualifying round of 13 four-team mini-tournaments. Twenty-seven sides advanced to spring’s elite round – as well as Portugal, who had received a bye – with seven emerging to join the hosts in Slovakia. So after the longest wait, the stage is set. Let the games begin!
Did you know?
UEFA will hold special education sessions at the U19 finals to warn young players about the dangers of doping and match-fixing.
The sessions for teams taking part in UEFA youth final tournaments are designed to make young players – who can be especially vulnerable at this age – aware of the risks they will encounter if they become involved in the manipulation of matches, and highlight the potential damage they can do to their budding careers in taking banned substances.
This article appears in the official programme for the UEFA European Under-19 Championship final tournament